Agent Harry Palmer, Funeral in Berlin (1966)
Telefunken ECC83 valve (made in Berlin, 1966)
Just arrived at LJC, a pair of the mighty Telefunken ECC83’s, known in the US as 12AX7’s, “new old stock” (NOS), mint unused matched pairs from 1966. Time-machine delivery.
What’s so special? Valves made in 1966. Music recorded in the mid ’60s pumped from vinyl pressed in the mid ’60’s into valves manufactured in the mid ’60s, everything talks the same language: electrons dance, a match made in audio heaven.
Telefunken are arguably the most famous valve manufacture in the world and its two valve manufacturing factories are no longer with us, disappeared, like most of the analog music technology of the golden era – Ampex, Scully, and Plastylite. Valves such as Telefunken’s ECC83s and the smooth plate 12AX7 are considered as being best of their kind, delivering ultra-wide dynamic range with an almost delicate transparency. That’s what I am hearing.
Quite a few of the records I have play-tested since these tubes went into the phono amp have gone up in my estimation, particularly those that had question marks over audio quality. For example, a late ’70’s Miles Davis second-press on the red Columbia-all-round later label sounded, well, quite delicious. It is a bit like upgrading your record collection.
Vacuum Tubes “essential”
Vacuum tubes are now the essential hipster accessory, more so even than a beard, geek-chic glasses, or an East London postcode. The mere presence of valves in your music-reproduction chain show you are musically hip and have a deep understanding of “tube music magic”. Needless to say it is only a question of time until a valve based smart phone arrives, but until then…
I have read that the economics of vacuum tube manufacture on an industrial scale, for such a small specialised market, is such that it is not practical (possibly outside of China). This makes vintage tubes particularly valuable – meaning expensive for what they are, but in the context of the cost of many hi-fi components, relatively cheap, especially considering the sonic improvement.
ECC83’s close up
Standing just 55mm high, these valves have a special place in the music reproduction chain, sitting as they do in the phono amp as the point of contact between the MC cartridge output and the pre-amplifier. They determine the signal quality that is passed upstream to the stronger amplification stages. What happens here is magnified many-fold later. Cuts both ways, bad sounds worse, good sounds better.
Mark of authenticity: the Telefunken “diamond” cut in the glass circle encircled by the pins. Genuine TFK valves, made in either the Ulm or former West-Berlin Telefunken factories, have the diamond in bottom and a 7-digit Telefunken code that starts with “B”-capital (Berlin-factory) or “U”-capital (Ulm-factory), and a complex algorithm which decodes into the date of manufacture
Telefunken ceased their own valve production around 1977-1978, moving to outsourcing , with deteriorating quality result, allegedly. Many tube-enthusiasts report knock-off Telefunken copies, or claimed Telefunken manufacture which fail the “diamond” test – the diamond shape cut into the glass seen below.
Telefunken manufacturers codes:
Telefunken – historical context
Valves were made for reproducing jazz…to judge from this ’50s German TV ad – which sails uncomfortably close to “stereotyping” black music, but this was a different world, and a step change from the previous decade and wartime Nazi ban on jazz as “degenerate art”. The valves play music, jazz, that’s surely right.
I marvel at the way post-war German technology (both valves and microphones) and American personal creative expression came together to give people the opportunity to record and hear this great music in the home. I am saddened how much this has been discarded in favour of convenience (the playlist), back ground music (multi-tasking) , and the distribution model (MP3 download), inevitable or otherwise.
But I have faith in the hipsters. There is one thing you can rely on, and that is the smart bearded ones, with their East London postcode address with a valve in their system, are the future. For now, anyway.
The KFC-bucket barbarians are forever knocking at the gates.